Last week, the Financial Times reported a milestone in the growth of technology companies
(paywall). For the first time ever, the five most valuable companies in the world were from this sector – Apple, Alphabet (owner of Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. As a business educator who is also into technology, I find this fascinating. In particular, I am struck by the way these companies not only use new technology to deliver services, they have also invented new ways of making money out of them, in other words, new business models. As I will attempt to show in this blog post, these new business models have surprisingly big implications.
I had been using the idea of new business models in my teaching for a while before I came across a paper that added a whole new dimension to my understanding
. According to DaSilva & Trkman (2014), the term “business model” was first used in 1957, but featured in very few academic papers until the 1990s. Usage of the term started to grow significantly in 1999 and, with some blips, has grown ever since. The authors convincingly link this to the rise in digital technologies and e-business. In the days before the web, it was fairly obvious what businesses did – they produced goods and/or services which they then sold to customers. But the web enabled new types of businesses where it was much less obvious how they were creating and capturing value. This meant we had to start examining their business models. Some of them, such as pets.com, discussed in the paper, turned out not to have a workable business model at all. Others, such as Google, invented successful new ones and made vast profits in the process.
The authors also argue that, despite the popularity of the term, “business model”, it does not have an agreed, useful definition. But the fact that we are having this debate illustrates for me how fast the world of business has changed. The old rules simply do not apply any more. For example, the laws of supply and demand taught in every economics course are not relevant when it comes to digital goods – supply is, to all intents and purposes, unlimited and without cost. It does not cost Google anything much to deliver a search result or Facebook to supply you with a profile. That’s one reason why they don’t charge for them, instead making money by selling information about you to advertisers.
And this leads on to a second important characteristic of much e-business. Traditional economics generally assumes the existence of a number of competing providers. When businesses get too big, they become vulnerable to challenge by nimbler rivals. Where there are exceptions, “natural monopolies” such as telecoms or water, these are closely managed and regulated to ensure they do not abuse their power.
But the uncomfortable truth about e-business may be that natural monopolies are the norm, not the exception. There is no real benefit in using competing search engines when Google gives you the best results, no reason to be on a social network other than the one everyone else is using, no reason to use other online retailers if Amazon uses its scale and marketing savvy to deliver everything you need at low prices. This is not to say that e-business is a bad thing, just that it seems to be becoming clear that the rules of economics are changing. And history shows us that when the rules of economics change, everything else changes too.
This is not my original idea, of course – there are many others exploring this territory and publishing books on it. Two I have read recently are Jaron Lanier
‘s Who Owns the Future?
and Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism
. I enjoyed both of them, partly because they range so widely over technology, economics, politics, sociology and history. This holistic perspective is surely necessary to contemplate the scale of changes underway. Broadly, Lanier is something of a pessimist, believing that “Siren Server” businesses are sucking value from the economy. A different approach, based on micro-payments and clearer ownership of information, is possible but, in his view, most probably will not be implemented until the current system has collapsed. By contrast Mason is generally an optimist, believing that the growth in the “networked economy” and non-monetary exchange shows a path by which we may deal with the challenges of climate change and demographics.
But they, and others, agree on one point. The capitalist system that has, one way or another, brought increased prosperity and wellbeing to the world over the last 200 years or so is no longer fit for purpose, and has started to collapse. The financial crisis of 2008 was an obvious sign of this, as is our inability to recover from it by using the traditional tools of monetary policy. Politically, the signs of collapse can be seen in revolts against our ruling elite, such as the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump. Such pains are to be expected if we are indeed starting to move towards a new type of economy. But if these writers are even partly right, and I think they are, then surely our most urgent task is working out what will replace our current system and, in small-scale experiments at first, starting to feel our way towards it. This, I suspect, will be humanity’s greatest challenge, and greatest opportunity, for many decades to come.
DaSilva, C. & Trkman, P. (2014), “Business Model: What It Is and What It Is Not”, Long Range Planning 47, 379–389